Never Finish Last: Part One
Art by renzyboy
I would like to thank desert_gp_dragon2oo5 for the use of her characters! And to the readers: keep reading and keep creating! Nothing feels better than finishing something you love.
Sunlight slats across the room as morning peeps its righteous head. In a bed by the corner a huddle of blankets bunch up, enveloping a mass of fatigued muscles—once agile and steady, now a dormant volcano. The Lupe rolls over his entangled blankets, only to have his sleep disturbed by one of the sunlit stripes that zoom across the room, aligning itself with one of his eyes. He squints and casts the covers over his head. He is not accustomed to early morning—not after he started his two week vacation, anyway. His groans, slight and deep-throated, echo under his blanket hideout. He does not want the morning to start.
Tough luck, then, to have a manager like Keila Varoix. The veracious Blumaroo comes over at least once a day, usually just after the sun comes up, with an attitude that can cut through the hardiest player. Thing is, she wants his morning to start. It gives her the thrill to make his morning start. If any odd job, good habit or tiny exercise directly benefits her players, she will have you do it in three weeks—tops. Her little footsteps sound through the empty hallway, and three hearty knocks come at the wooden door.
"Tressif? I know you're awake. I can practically hear the sound of your whining."
She couldn't, of course. She just thinks it's a "nice" way to enter a room: a rash, insensitive cajole to the new guy. A tease, if you will.
She couldn't, of course. He knows that. It's impossible, he states in the confines of his head. I'm not even whining. Just... snoring. He scooches his legs over his stomach, his knees just below his fuzzy chin. The Lupe hopes that, like everything else in this world, she would come to pass. Maybe some other day, he tells Keila with his mind. He supposes she would turn around and bother some other Neopet.
But Keila isn't like anything else in this world. Not even on Kreludor would you find a brash personality like hers. The knocks on the door began to grow louder and more constant. If it was any other player, or person for that matter, they would have gone out the fire escape, or sneaked out the bathroom window, or built a fire at the door to scare her off.
But this is Tressif. The good guy. The nice guy. He doesn't want her company, or any other of the sort; not until he felt like he settled well from his crude decision to leave Brightvale, or at least let his body embrace the humidity of the island. Yet despite the insistent banging he doesn't want to upset her, his new manager. She could potentially be his only friend for this indefinite stay.
The Lupe flips the bedcovers up from over his body; a strong framework softened from one of his two weeks off. His feet inch across the carpet. His eyelids still fight the pull of gravity as he heads towards the door. As his hand hovers over the doorknob, the door swiftly opens. That's what happens when you leave a manager at the foot of your door: she comes busting in anyway.
Keila peeks to see the Lupe clutching his foot, wrapping his big toe with several fingers. He shoots a look of sudden anger at her, but his sleepy eyes communicated an irked scoff instead of a frank disturbance. "You know that door was going to open sooner or later," she warns. She doesn't want to allow any form of contempt to come pass her; especially not from the newcomer. Being a manager to one of the more popular teams of the Cup, she has to be stern about the job. It's for the best of the team anyway.
Tressif swings the door to let the Blumaroo in. She looks around the one-room apartment: a door over there for the bathroom, a small kitchen, a window, a bed, a table and some chairs. While she browses the dingy room he insisted on staying in, he dives right back into the sea of bed sheets in a cushioned thud. Varoix rolls her eyes to the sight. This used to be the captain of Team Brightvale! His profound leadership, his "squeaky clean" persona, his drive has just become a slop of jelly eager to join Imiya in the land of sleep. Of course, without the nightmare Babaas. And, worse, the math equations.
She walks over to the fridge and grabs some eggs and a few strips of streaky bacon. She looks over the Lupe as she turns the stove on.
Nope. Still as lively as the Wheel of Monotony. Oh well. Perhaps after a hearty breakfast he'll come to, she says aloud in her head. She usually doesn't cook for other people, let alone cook, but the guy's got it rough for the past year. Steadily getting upset over his manager; and his team, always playing dirty. The pressures to win competitions versus the need to perform justly became too great.
The sizzling of the eggs cancels out the silence in the room. Pork stains the smell of musty air and the floral bath soap sitting in the bathroom's lavatory. The light seems to grow less and less conducive to sleep. Tressif is losing a battle. He pulls the covers closer to his face and scrunches like a raisin. Varoix sighs at the wimp and opens the cupboards for some salt.
"You know, today is the day you're going to meet the guys and gals. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Tressif replies with a growl that undermines his quiet anger. Could you please wait until I sort everything out? he thinks.
She shuts the cupboard door that upsets the sound of breakfast cooking. "Look, I know things are tough now. But the sooner you get out of that bed and into that field the sooner you can shape up and be a hero again, or something." She shakes her head and tends to the eggs, flipping them with the spatula that hanged on a hook attached to the wall in the kitchen.
The bacon makes a fight for it, splashing hot oil from inside the pan to Keila's blouse. Keila, with the mighty turner, scoops them from the flames and plates them up for the sleeper in the bed covers. He is testing her patience again; a bold, brave, yet immensely unwise thing to do, and at an early time in the morning as well. She settles the plates on the dining table and walks towards the former Brightvale captain.
He opens his eyes and all of a sudden his covers rise with tremendous force. He slides off the mattress and lands on his tail. "When I say wake up, you wake up," she says, and motions him to join her for breakfast. He submits to her whim, knowing that refusing it would be equal to stopping in the path of an angry Snowager. She hands him a fork and the two share the meal.
"Thanks," he says under his breath. Hopefully she didn't hear that, he thinks.
"For the bacon and eggs? That's hardly a call for thanks." She runs her pudgy fingers over her blonde-and-blue hair and slices her eggs.
He straightens up, aware that he can hear her. "I mean, thanks. For everything." He cuts into the yolk; the yellow gushes across his plate, staining the bacon strips. Ah, a decent breakfast, for once. None of that carnival food Roo Islanders are obsessed with. He rests his head on his left paw and swirls the yolk with the fork on his right. Keila finishes her plate and gets up for a brew of coffee. A little hospitality could push the guy to go outside, at least. He's been slumping in this apartment since the conference: the day everything seemed to fall apart. But it was his decision. He knew that everything was coming at his doorstep the moment he filed the papers. The day he dropped Brightvale.
Keila fills a kettle halfway with tap water and turns the stove's burner on. "Look. I know that things this week feel like Maraqua rock bottom. Maraquan Ruins rock bottom. But you knew what was coming. What was going to happen. Ultimately, I think what you did, dropping your team for what you felt was right, is the gutsiest thing I've ever witnessed as a manager. You did what you had to do for your own self preservation, and I admire that."
The Lupe, slumped on the edge of the wooden table, lifts his head to glance at her, only to return to his half-eaten meal. He did what he had to do, what he wanted to do. But there is something there he couldn't identify. Guilt? Sadness? Anger? All of it swirls in the recesses of his stomach, alongside his eggs and bacon.
"But staying in here is going to end you. It ends me to see you stay here and end you, so before it ends both of us, I suggest you go outside and get some fresh air. Grab a snack. Do anything. If you want to slump, that's fine; but can you at least slump somewhere more ventilated?"
Tressif forks a bacon square and a piece of egg and sluggardly puts it in his snout. Guilt seems to stir up his stomach; a nausea surfacing from his inners. Lightheaded; he breathes heavily to let some oxygen into his brain. He shouldn't feel guilty. After all he needed to get out of the team. At least, that's what he says he needed. Brightvale didn't even make him feel uncomfortable; the living provisions were enough, and the fans, albeit sparse, were more than supportive. It was his teammates that did the driving crazy. They're nice, yes. They acted like they were family, yes. But what they do on the field insults the game, insults Brightvale, and insults him. As team captain Tressif had to lead his team into greatness; they get a chance to best the greatest players on the most excellent sport of Neopia.
But he didn't want to cheat. He wanted to get the Cup fair and square. Greaseless. They didn't call him "Squeaky" for his bathtime adventures nor his house-scrubbing prowess. He was raised square, and that's how he wanted it done. His teammates, however, were not so square. In fact, they were rumored to be some of the dirtiest players to have ever emerged from the game; some outranking those likes of athletes from the Citadel and the Woods. They blow more jabs, elbows, trips, skids and sneers than a fight of Meepit versus Feepit. What's the point of being "squeaky clean" when your rivals name one of your teammates "The Baby-Faced Mauler"?
He shouldn't feel guilty about leaving a team like that. They, he and their team manager, have always tried to keep them in line, but to no avail. Maybe he felt guilty for leaving his confidante, Mr. Caspar Opportun, to manage the team solo. The elderly Tuskaninny had no chance of taming the team alone. Often times he would drop his fancy hat and leave them in frustration.
Keila places two mugs on the dining table and pours the coffee. "Cream? You got any cream here? Or sugar?" Tressif, still seeping in thought, points lazily to a small condiment shelf on the kitchen counter. He could always ask forgiveness from Mr. Opportun. The man always had a fresh outlook on things. Maybe if he could just say sorry... But Tressif couldn't even forgive himself for what he did to his manager; calling him out for his lack of competence. That was a slip of tongue through a drowsy night that didn't mean anything and wasn't supposed to mean anything. The team slowly fell apart. It's a wonder they could last five years without a massive overhaul. They became harder to manage and harder to take seriously.
Squeaky remembers the dread he felt during every practice, back in the cold home turfs of Brightvale. His patience, a long and retardant wick, went at its burning end. Both his bubbling passion to keep the game's sanctity and his burning rage for his teammates' mischief peaked their threshold. The practice games became more and more debilitating and less delightful for him. He gardened a dislike for dirty play. At the start of Year 14 the tension was too much for him to bear, and the captain, feeling severed from his ties with his manager and his team, quit Brightvale.
Tressif stirs his coffee and watches the wafts stretch and play in the air of his musty apartment. "Keila?"
"Would you leave the room for a minute? I need to change."
"I'm taking a jog."
To be continued...